All Out, the global advocacy group on LGBTQI rights (largely an advocacy INGO) recently launched a petition campaign on Sri Lanka, entitled ‘no deals with homophobes’. This petition was intended at the calling upon the European institutions (especially the European Parliament) to avoid GSP+ trade deals with the government of Sri Lanka, until it ‘dropped’ its ‘anti-gay law’. What they are referring to are Articles 365 and 365A of the Penal Code, which criminalise non-heterosexual sexualities. All Out conveniently avoids mentioning the fact that these laws were imposed upon Sri Lanka under British rule.
This petition has earned severe criticism from leading members of Sri Lanka’s LGBTQI community, who advocate for a locally-grounded strategy of Queer Liberation, identifying discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity as interconnected to other gender-based patriarchal oppressions, affecting cis women victimised by the country’s long war. Sri Lankan activists stress the importance of developing an intersectional local dialogue, connecting the struggles of the LGBTQI community with broader gender and social justice struggles. This effort has received the endorsement of the large majority of LGBTIQ Sri Lankans, many of them professionals and committed gender justice and human rights activists.
In an unprecedented collective initiative, LGBTQI activists and allies organised a press conference in Colombo last week, with the participation of LGB people, Trans women and men, and people with academic expertise in a number of fields including sociology, criminal law, international relations and medicine. The event conference was a 100% local initiative held in Sinhala, Tamil and English, clearly demonstrated the interconnectedness between equality pertaining to gender identity and sexual orientation and the wider spectrum of gender and social justice.
Trans activist and International Politics academic Dr Chamindra Weerawardhana, the first ever trans woman to be on a research appointment at Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland, said “this petition is seriously counterproductive. Conflating the international trade deals of the government of Sri Lanka with the campaign to get colonial laws repealed risks increasing prejudices and the view – widespread in many countries the global south including Sri Lanka – that LGBTQI rights are a ‘Western imposition’. The local LGBTQI community is campaigning vigorously, and this international petition jeopardises their local engagements. Pushing the government of Sri Lanka against the wall is a clear no-brainer. This is a local issue of fundamental rights, that needs to be, and can be, resolved through local engagements and lobbying. The LGBTQI community is already doing a very commendable job along this path. It is precisely this kind of Western approach that is at the heart of the opposition of some governments to the UN’s emphasis on SOGIE”.
Dr Weerawardhana further noted “What bothers me the most is the fact that a Sri Lankan organisation, which presents itself as a defender of the Sri Lankan LGBTQI community, is behind this All Out petition. This is atrocious and highly detrimental to the broader LGBTQI community’s efforts to develop a locally grounded queer liberation movement. LGBTQI rights are not about imitating developments in the West or anywhere else blindly, but working towards the fundamental rights and acceptance of citizens locally, challenging gender identity and sexual orientation-based stereotypes and misinformation. A responsible Sri Lankan LGBTQI advocacy group should clearly distance itself from myopic and ill-informed initiatives of this nature, and issue a clear statement in Sinhala, Tamil and English that they don’t support such coercive measures. We are Sri Lankans working on consolidating our fundamental rights as Sri Lankan citizens, lobbying with our government and institutions. We work with them, and not against them”
A similar sentiment is shared across the LGBTQI community and allies.
Denver Peterson, a leading Sri Lankan LGBTQI activist, the moderator of the popular Facebook page 365 Api and one of the co-organisers of last week’s press conference, noted “We as Sri Lankan citizens, have strengthened our campaign to ensure our basic human rights. Sexual orientation and gender identity should not prevent any citizen from being treated differently. Articles 365 and 365A of the Penal Code are an impediment to the fundamental rights of Sri Lankans who are not heterosexual and non-heteronormative. We are working on connecting discrimination against LGBTQI people with discrimination facing other minority communities, and developing a strong campaign based on social justice. We are raising awareness day-by-day in the local community and with the political establishment, and this is the path forward”, Peterson further added.
Udesh Fernando, a Sri Lankan scholar in international relations who previously worked for the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute and recently graduated with an M.Sc. in International Relations from the University of London, explained “in a spirit of committed allyship, I maintain that repealing Article 365 and ensuring the fundamental rights of the LGBTQI community is an absolute national priority. However, halting Sri Lanka’s trade deals with the EU is not the ideal strategy right now, if we want something good to come out. It is a step that increases tensions between genuine activists and all the hard work they do on the ground here in Sri Lanka. This is exactly the kind of step that further widens the rift between the political establishment and LGBTQI activists, reinforcing the former’s perception of the latter as ‘westernised’ and not really Sri Lankan. This in turn strengthens the non-argument – but nonetheless widely repeated argument that LGBTQI rights are irrelevant to Sri Lanka”.
Overall, Fernando explained, “My take is that the Sri Lankan endorsers, or rather, endorser, of this petition has two objectives: completely destroying the hard work done by LGBTQI activists on the ground, present Sri Lanka to the West as an ‘LGBTQI rights nightmare’ and chip in to funding from the EU and other Western sources. This desperation for funding seems to be the driving factor for the ‘apparently, Sri Lankan’ organisation that supports this petition, and its high command”.
Fernando further cautioned “politically, Sri Lanka is currently on very thin ice. The Joint Opposition, headed by people far from friendly to gender justice of any sort, would be the happiest about this petition, as it gives them the opportunity to strengthen its critique not only of the LGBTQI community, but also of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe joint government. So the people who signed this petition should seriously bear in mind that there are doing a big disservice to Sri Lanka’s LGBTQI community. My concern is that their genuine and hard-fought efforts to raise awareness and launch a national campaign will be sabotaged by this petition”, Fernando added.
Colombo Telegraph learns from a news article published in the website of the US-based organisation Human Rights Campaign that a Sri Lankan organisation, Equal Ground (EG), is behind this petition initiative that risks disrupting all the efforts and headways made by committed Sri Lankan LGBTQI activists. As opposed to Sri Lankan citizens who campaign vigorously with meagre resources, EG maintains strong relations with Western embassies in Colombo and is run by a dual US citizen and appears, according to many activists we spoke to, as keen on presenting itself as the foremost, if not the only LGBTQI organisation in Sri Lanka. This is totally untrue, and Sri Lanka is home to a vibrant LGBTQI advocacy community, with several organisations, pressure groups and a large number of individual activists.